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February 3, 2011
Stats Love Wisconsin
(And Humans Don't)

by John Gasaway


I think it's fair to say that advanced metrics have proven themselves to be pretty handy in college basketball. Last year those metrics liked Duke a lot earlier and a lot more than most people did, and, as we all know now, liking the Blue Devils turned out to be the smart move.

By the same token last March the stats collectively shook their head and chuckled when New Mexico was given a lofty No. 3 seed by the NCAA tournament selection committee. And, sure enough, that chuckle also turned out to be wise. No doubt about it, these advanced metrics seem like they really know their stuff.

Yes, but then there's Wisconsin.

Every year without fail the Badgers look absolutely beautiful on paper. Right now Bo Ryan's team is ranked No. 8 in the nation by Ken Pomeroy's rating system. If it's February you can count on every laptop in sight to going wild for the Badgers. And, just as certainly, every human in sight will say, "No! Wait! You don't understand. This is Wisconsin we're talking about. They won't do anything come March." So we find that this very same group of Badgers is ranked down around No. 18 or 19 in the major polls. Who's right?

Allow me to referee this dispute. I happen to think laptops and humans can get along, even when the subject is Wisconsin.

Ryan isn't as good during the regular season as you think. He's better.
Bo Ryan was named head coach at the University of Wisconsin on March 29, 2001, a hire that at the time was viewed as a classic "Plan B" move by the Badgers. After all, it was well known that the powers that be in Madison had been turned down by then-Utah head coach Rick Majerus. "I don't know if I was my wife's first choice either," Ryan said that day, "but we've had a great marriage." Ryan's comments were prescient. This is his tenth season at Wisconsin, and over that time the Badgers have won 71 percent of their Big Ten games. By comparison Tom Izzo, a pretty fair coach in his own right, has won 67 percent of his conference games over that same span at Michigan State. With Ryan on the sidelines in Madison, the Badgers have achieved the rough equivalent of going 13-5 in the Big Ten every year for a decade. I think most fans would take that.

But it is true Wisconsin really doesn't like seeing mid-majors in March.
What's amazing about the Badgers' recent history in the NCAA tournament is not so much that they keep being sent home -- all teams but one get sent home at some point -- but rather that they keep losing to mid-majors. Ryan's team hasn't lost to a major-conference opponent in the tournament since Arizona beat them in the first round in 2006. Since then Wisconsin has met its March doom at the hands of UNLV, Davidson, Xavier, and Cornell. Some of those games do indeed qualify as the proverbial "bad" loss. (In 2007 the No. 2 seed Badgers lost in the second round to No. 7 seed UNLV, coincidentally the last Mountain West team to reach the tournament's second weekend.) Then again some of those losses were much more understandable. (The Stephen Curry-led Davidson team that beat Wisconsin in 2008 came within a possession or two of defeating eventual national champion Kansas in the Elite Eight.) Ryan's had some bad losses in the NCAA tournament, but, unless your last name is "Izzo," so does every coach sooner or later.

This year's Wisconsin offense is slower and better than ever.
Scoring an average of 66 points per game in Big Ten play, the Badgers may not be the first team that comes to mind when you think "high-powered offense." Well, tell your mind it shouldn't be fooled so easily. Averaging just 56 possessions per 40 minutes, Wisconsin is easily the slowest-paced team in the Big Ten, meaning the Badgers are easily the slowest-paced major-conference team in the country. The point totals may not be terribly impressive, but on a possession-by-possession basis this is one of the best offenses you'll see anywhere. Jon Leuer, the 6-10 senior who cleans the defensive glass but also hits 45 percent of his threes, is having another excellent year, while 6-1 junior Jordan Taylor is, if anything, even more efficient than Leuer. But what truly sets Wisconsin apart is turnovers. There are none. In conference play the Badgers have given the ball away just 54 times over the course of 513 possessions. That works out to a turnover percentage of 10.5, which if it holds up would be amazing. The best turnover percentage I've seen in major-conference play in recent years was the 14.0 recorded by (well what do you know) Wisconsin last year. By ending very nearly nine out of every ten possessions with a shot attempt, the Badgers are placing a tremendous and unprecedented strain on opposing defenses.

In other words, Bo Ryan has a proven system in place, one that over the course of 18 conference games will reliably churn out points and incredible stats, albeit in a slow and somewhat deceiving manner. Put that same system in a single-elimination tournament, however, and Wisconsin's subject to the same risks and hazards as any other team. When the Badgers, and it's bound to happen, successfully navigate those risks and hazards, stats and humans will at long last agree about this team. Until then feel free to chuckle knowingly at all those Wisconsin-loving laptops.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

3 comments have been left for this article.

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